A Critique of Pure Tolerance
The prime movers of the liberal tradition have always recognized that the virtue of tolerance has its limits. John Locke provides a case in point. In his celebrated Letters on Toleration, Locke defended the widest possible legal and political tolerance of private persons and associations. He made exceptions, however, of three groups: Catholics both because they would abrogate the liberties of others and because they owe allegiance to a “foreign power,” Mohammedans because their traditional practices render them in effect unassimilable by a Western European body politic, and atheists because in denying God’s existence they show themselves to be impervious to distinctions between right and wrong. As Bertrand Russell once said, John Locke was the most conservative of revolutionists. Perhaps this is the reason why, although his political philosophy frequently goes out of fashion, it never quite becomes obsolete.
Of course mankind has come a long and tortuous way since Locke’s time, so long a way that Professor Robert Wolff, whose essay is perhaps the most “liberal” of the three that comprise this disquieting little book, finds it possible simply to dismiss Locke’s philosophy of government as “irrelevant” to the problems confronting the Western democracies in our time. Wolff and his associates do not, like Locke, hold merely that tolerance is subject to critique and hence to limitations; they are, rather, largely disillusioned with it as a virtue of contemporary political and social life. Indeed, they consider it to be a mask, if not a positive cause, of the indifference, inequality, and malpractice endemic in all modern liberal democracies, and particularly in the United States. They are convinced not only that the mask must be lifted so that the ugly realities behind it may be exposed, but also that the cause must be extirpated. This is why the book is so disturbing. Many of us share with Professors Wolff, Moore, and Marcuse the conviction that radical politico-social changes are necessary, not just in “underprivileged” areas that have lately thrown off the yoke of political imperialism, but also at home where the munificence of the welfare state serves, among other things, to blanket the desperation of vast numbers of human beings. But few of us as yet are prepared to deny political toleration to those who now block such changes. Like Locke, so to say, we are conservative revolutionists. Wolff, Moore, and Marcuse are not. They accept certain possibilities which “we” have barely contemplated. And whether in the end we agree with them, we are in their debt for obliging us to consider whether tolerance, as now practiced in our country, is a luxury which we can no longer afford.
IT SHOULD BE ADDED at once that our authors have not written a common manifesto, nor have they sought to obscure their differences of outlook upon the fate and hope of mankind. How such a book came to be written at all (to a quandam neighbor, like myself, they seem a rather unlikely trio to have joined in such a…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.